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“Access to electricity is fundamental to opportunity in this age. It’s the light that children study by; the energy that allows an idea to be transformed into a real business. It’s the lifeline for families to meet their most basic needs. And it’s the connection that’s needed to plug Africa into the grid of the global economy. You’ve got to have power. And yet two-thirds of the population in sub-Saharan Africa lacks access to power -- and the percentage is much higher for those who don’t live in cities.” – President Barack Obama, Remarks at the Uni. of Cape Town, June 30, 2013
The satellite image of earth at night says it all: except for a few urban areas scattered here and there, essentially the entire continent of Africa is shrouded in darkness. In many sub-Saharan African nations, as much as 90% of the rural population lacks access to electricity. No lights. No refrigerators. No computers. Nada, Zippo, Zilch.
When I read that President Obama had introduced his administration’s new Power Africa initiative I was excited at the prospect of more lights being turned on in Africa, more children being able to go to school and access online resources, more patients being treated and vaccinated at rural health clinics, more farmers finding ways to ensure their own food security, and more small entrepreneurs launching new businesses.
Power Africa will commit more than $7 billion in financial support over the next five years from the U.S. Import-Export Bank and Overseas Private Investment Corporation. An additional $9 billion will be leveraged in private sector commitments from initiative partners that will support the development of more than 8,000 megawatts of new electricity generation in sub-Saharan Africa.
For those of us in the international development community who have been fighting energy poverty, this initiative is a big deal. Combined with the U.N.’s Sustainable Energy for All Initiative – whose primary goal is to ensure universal access to modern energy services for the world’s poor by 2030 – Power Africa can help make a significant contribution to the challenge of providing electricity to those who have none.
Although the bulk of the initiative seems to be focused on developing electricity services for those that live in or near urban areas, it is important to note that the vast majority of people who suffer from energy poverty live beyond the reach of a traditional power grid. These folks are not likely to have access to grid electricity anytime soon due to the exorbitant cost and logistical difficulty of extending power lines to remote parts of the world. Solar and other renewable energy‐based power systems offer the best solution in meeting the current and future energy needs of off-grid communities as they can be installed in very remote locations and do not have to be tied to a utility grid.
Solar electricity may be used to power stand-alone applications such as household lighting systems and appliances, or alternatively, to power larger facilities such as schools and health centers. It can also be used to pump and purify water, irrigate crops, run computers, and power small businesses. When combined with wireless communications, solar energy can also put the world’s ever-expanding database of knowledge at the fingertips of every child on the planet, no matter how remote or isolated he or she may happen to be. And now, thanks to recent advances in inverter and smart metering technology, solar microgrids are quickly becoming a cost-effective solution for powering entire villages or even clusters of villages in the developing world.
Achieving the goals of the Power Africa initiative will require creative thinking, innovation, expertise, and cooperation. Working with government, private sector and non-governmental organization partners, SELF has built a track record of successful solar electricity projects in more than 20 countries around the world, enabling us to develop innovative applications of solar energy to assist those living without electricity in their economic, education, health and agricultural development. By working collaboratively to develop innovative approaches in providing energy solutions for people living in energy poverty, we can put them on a path of self-reliance and prosperity.
I believe that energy is a human right. Without it, there is no way to light homes, pump water, store vaccines, run computers, operate machinery, or communicate with the rest of the world; it is a cornerstone of modern civilization.
For many communities that lie beyond the reach of a conventional power grid, solar energy offers the greatest hope to provide the power they need to improve their lives. I believe that SELF’s approach in implementing solar energy systems to power virtually every aspect of community life can be replicated around the world to help lift people out of poverty and secure a brighter future for themselves and their children.
It's time to declare energy to be a human right.
Without energy, there is no way to light our homes, pump water, store vaccines, run computers, operate machinery, or communicate with the rest of the world.
Energy is a cornerstone of modern civilization, yet 1.5 billion people still have no access to electricity. This is unacceptable.
But progress is being made. Earlier this week, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, while attending the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, announced that 2012 has been designated by the United Nations General Assembly as the “International Year of Sustainable Energy for All”.
For those of us who have been fighting energy poverty, this is a big deal. In fact, this is a big deal for anyone and everyone who cares about clean water, food security, women’s empowerment, healthcare, education, poverty alleviation, and the protection of our global ecosystem, for energy access is a prerequisite for all of the above.
For far too long, the role of energy in meeting basic human needs had been overlooked by the international development community. Energy access was not included as a Millennium Development Goal when the MDGs were first announced by the U.N. in the year 2000. Ever since then, however, there has been a growing consensus that none of the MDGs can be achieved without access to modern energy services. And now, with the declaration of the Year of Sustainable Energy for All, the United Nations has elevated the importance of energy access to the highest level of political discourse. The U.N. Secretary General is calling upon governments of the world, along with the private sector and civil society, to join forces in a global campaign to end energy poverty by the year 2030.
The UN Sustainable Energy for All Initiative is focused on three mutually reinforcing goals: 1) ensuring universal access to modern energy services; 2) doubling the rate of improvement in energy efficiency; and 3) doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix.
I am happy to see this campaign get underway. But we can do more. We can assign legal status to the notion of energy as a human right. We can make it official!
On what grounds, then, can access to energy be considered a human right, and secondly, to what extent might a human rights platform help to accelerate progress towards the goal of universal energy access?
To find justification for the concept of energy as a human right, one need look no further than to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which has its roots in the same process that led to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). In 1945, the newly established United Nations began drafting a “Declaration on the Essential Rights of Man”, which was split early on into a declaration setting forth general principles of human rights and a convention containing binding commitments. The former evolved into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and was adopted on December 10,1948.
Drafting on the convention continued, but due to ongoing differences among member states on the relative importance of “negative” civil and political rights versus “positive” economic, social, and cultural rights, the convention was eventually split into two separate documents: 1) the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and 2) the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Both drafts were presented to the UN General Assembly for discussion in 1954, and adopted on December 16, 1966. As of July 2011, the Covenant had 160 parties.
A quick review of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights reveals just how essential energy access is to a wide range of socio-economic goals upheld by the ICESCR. Article 11 of the Covenant, for example, lists a number of rights that are essential to achieve a decent standard of living, including access to “adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement in living conditions”. Article 12 confers the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. Articles 6 and 7 of the Covenant establish the right to work, while Article 13 establishes the right to education.
While not identified as such, it may be argued that the right of access to modern energy is implicitly conferred by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as it is essential to the fulfillment of many if not most of the articles contained therein. This is precisely the case with the Millennium Development Goals: access to energy, though not included itself, is an absolute prerequisite for achieving each and every one of the MDGs.
With the launching of the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All, the timing could not be better for the assigning of legal status to the right of access to modern energy services. Doing so would impose obligations on States, both at the national and international level. A human rights approach to energy access would also help to mobilize the entire structure of the UN human rights apparatus, and empower organizations fighting for rights in other sectors to champion energy access as a key component of their respective agendas.
Let’s take women’s rights, for example, which are not only the focus of Millennium Development Goal No. 3 (“promote gender equality and empower women”) but which are also embodied in a number of international treaties, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly, CEDAW is often described as an international bill of rights for women. Consisting of a preamble and 30 articles, it defines what constitutes discrimination against women and sets up an agenda for national action to end such discrimination.
The Convention provides the basis for achieving equality between women and men through ensuring women’s equal access to, and equal opportunities in, political and public life as well as in the areas of education, health and employment. According to Article 3 of the Convention, “States Parties shall take in all fields, in particular the political, social, economic and cultural fields, all appropriate measure, including legislation, to ensure the full development and advancement of women.”
In light of the above, the question is: how will women’s rights ever be safeguarded if they are the ones who have to walk miles every day to fetch water and fuel? Or inhale the noxious fumes from indoor cooking fires and kerosene lamps? Or give birth in the dark?
Women surely bear the greatest burden when it comes to energy poverty, and unless and until modern energy services are made available to them, women—especially those in rural areas—will continue to suffer from gross inequalities in their health, education, and economic opportunity.
Water is another issue that is tightly interwoven with that of energy, but in terms of rights, water has made greater progress. In fact, on July 28, 2010, the United Nations passed a resolution declaring that access to clean water and sanitation is a human right. In adopting the resolution, the UN General Assembly expressed deep concern that almost 900 million people worldwide do not have access to clean water, and called upon member states and international organizations to help poorer countries scale up efforts to provide clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for everyone.
And yet, access to clean water itself depends upon energy. For example, the MDG target of reducing by half the number of people without access to clean water will require one million electric pumps. Many types of water purification systems also require electricity to operate. So in the final analysis, the right to clean water—which underpins a number of other social and economic human rights—is itself dependent upon having access to modern forms of energy.
The same argument can be extended to other sectors as well. Healthcare is an obvious one. Without access to energy, especially electricity, it is not possible to store vaccines and other vital medicines, or operate a modern healthcare facility. The concept of health as a human right has made great strides in recent years, and is now championed by a growing number of visionary leaders such as Dr. Paul Farmer, who recognizes and has publically spoken out on the critical importance of modern energy in delivering healthcare services to the poor.
The list goes on and on. Whether it be in terms of gender equality, clean water, healthcare, or any number of other priorities not discussed here (such as food security, poverty alleviation, or protection of the environment), energy access—or the lack thereof—invariably factors into the equation. Since all the Millennium Development Goals, and many of the rights upheld by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ultimately depend upon having access to modern forms of energy, it is time that we declare energy itself to be a human right.
In light of the fact that 2012 has just been designated by the United Nations as the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All, I cannot think of a better way to strengthen the resolve of the global development community in its efforts to achieve universal energy access.
A human rights platform would provide a strong moral basis as well as an authoritative legal structure by which to pressure governments to provide basic energy services to their people, especially those living in rural and remote regions. It’s not just about investing government resources, which in the developing world can be quite limited; it’s about creating an enabling environment—in terms of laws, policies, and regulatory frameworks—that will encourage creative partnerships between local governments, civil society, and the private sector to increase energy access for the poor.
Energy is essential for life. It is essential for achieving the Millennium Development Goals. And it is essential for safeguarding a broad range of basic human rights. The right of access to energy is, in fact, implicitly conferred by a number of international treaties and conventions, but now the time has come to make such an assumption explicit and formally declare—with the full backing and authority of the United Nations—that access to modern energy is, and shall henceforth be deemed, a fundamental human right.
The Millennium Development Goals, which all 192 United Nation member states and at least 23 international organizations have signed on to, include 1) eradicating extreme poverty and hunger; 2) achieving universal primary education; 3) promoting gender equality and empowering women; 4) reducing child mortality; 5) improving maternal health; 6) combating HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases; 7) ensuring environmental sustainability; and 8) building a global partnership for development.
When the Millennium Development Goals were first announced 10 years ago, I was surprised and disappointed to learn that energy access had not been included by the U.N. as one of the MDGs. For without access to modern energy services, none of the MDGs are ultimately achievable. However, in the past few years, a growing number of institutions, including the United Nations itself and the International Energy Agency, have come to acknowledge and promote the fundamental importance of modern energy in meeting all of the Millennium Development Goals.
So how exactly does energy relate to the MDGs? Let us take a closer look. For each of the Millennium Development Goals, I have provided an example or two of the role that energy access can play in fulfilling that goal. Please bear in mind that the list of examples included here is by no means exhaustive.
Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger
- Household lighting extends the productive work day.
Electricity facilitates the establishment of village-based micro-enterprises.
Energy for irrigation increases food production and access to nutrition.
We partnered with Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment to evaluate the impact of our Solar Market Garden in Benin's Kalalé district.I blogged about the our involvement in Benin in an earlier post titled - Food Security: Using Solar Power to Transform Rural Agriculture in Benin's Kalalé District - noting how we were first contacted by Dr. Mamoudou Setamou, a native of Kalalé. Our hopes for Benin were also documented by Yann Arthus-Bertrand in the The End of Oil, a recent episode of his "Earth from Above" series.
While the results of the project are very encouraging, I want to emphasize that they are just one part, an important one, of course, of SELF's Solar Integrated Development Model.
The Solar Integrated Development (SID) Model developed by SELF is based on three principles:
Solar electrification projects are chosen by the people in rural communities as full participants, acting on their own behalf. The villagers determine priorities as well as the project scope.
Solar systems are purchased by villagers through micro-credit financing. Each family pays for its own system and participates in the ownership of community systems, spreading development funds further to help more people.
Villagers, both men and women, are trained to install, maintain and replicate their solar systems. In addition, a store of spare parts is provided as part of the initial project funding. Local partners are assisted in establishing a supply chain for continuing purchase of spare parts.
Each project flows from the needs and leadership of the community. The community is committed to and empowered by full participation in all project phases including design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation.
SELF partners with government, corporations and non-governmental organizations to develop and promote additional technologies and systems such as solar-powered micro-irrigation, crop-processing equipment, internet connectivity, telemedicine and commercial applications to help broaden the scope and impact of solar-generated electricity.
A solar electric system provides 20 years worth of energy at a fixed cost. Utilizing the latest technologies, projects are implemented with the most reliable and cost-effective equipment.
Beyond providing the electrical energy source, our Solar Integrated Development Model provides targeted applications, tools and hardware such as LED lights, sewing machine motors, oil expellers, vaccine refrigerators, water pumps, and computers, often through microfinance loans, so that community members have the tools to turn electrical energy into economic empowerment . The goal is not simply that people have electricity; it is that they immediately benefit from having electricity.
SELF's solar installation has made a dramatic impact on the health and quality of life for the people of Bessassi and Dunkassa in northern Benin. But there is much more work to be done. While the immediate next step is to drill wells in each of these two villages - ensuring access to clean, safe drinking water - there are 42 more villages anxiously waiting for solar-powered drip irrigation. SELF conducted site assessments in August 2009 and the wells were drilled in December 2009, with solar-powered pumps scheduled to be installed in March 2010. But we still need to raise money for drip irrigation systems for the additional villages.
Last, but certainly not least, SELF has promised to provide whole-village solar electric systems to each of the rural farming communities in Kalalé. By bringing solar energy to power their schools, homes, health clinics, street lights and microenterprise centers, we can empower Beninese women and their families to lift themselves out of poverty, ensuring a brighter future for all.
Please help us continue empowering the women of Africa, and bring hope to them and their children.
- Saving Sub-Sahara Africa a Drip at a Time Miller-Mccune
In April 2009, the French environmental magazine Terra Eco published a story on the Solar Electric Light Fund, “SELF and the Empire of the Electifying Sun.” That story grabbed the attention of of Vu du Ciel, a National Geographic - like program hosted by world-renowned photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand.
You may have seen or own a copy of Arthus-Bertrand’s stunningly beautiful coffee table book Earth from Above. Or perhaps you have watched HOME, the documentary about planet Earth (as seen from above) that was filmed and produced by Arthus-Bertrand and made freely available to the world via the Internet.
On November 26, 2009, French television broadcast a 90-minute episode of Vu du Ciel entitled “The End of Oil” which featured SELF’s work in Benin, West Africa.
Here’s the English-language version of SELF’s segment in the program:
One of the events I attended was a CNN/YouTube–sponsored debate that featured the following panelists: Yvo de Boer, Exec. Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, NY Times Op-Ed columnist and Pulitzer-prize winning author Thomas Friedman, actor/environmentalist Daryl Hannah, and Bjorn Lomborg, Director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center.
Mr. Lomborg, an environmental skeptic, says he believes in the concept of anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change, but unlike the vast majority of people and organizations who attended COP15, he doesn’t think that cutting carbon emissions is the best approach to dealing with the problem. Instead, he argues, we should invest our time and money helping those who are most vulnerable to the adverse affects of global warming.
In an article (“Time for a Smarter Approach to Global Warming”) that appeared in the Dec 15, 2009 edition of the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Lomborg states that “money spent on carbon cuts is money we can’t use for effective investments in food aid, micronutrients, HIV/AIDs prevention, health and education infrastructure, and clean water and sanitation.”
While I appreciate Mr. Lomborg’s concern for the poor—and yes, it is true that the world’s poorest citizens will, in fact, suffer the greatest from climate change even though they are least responsible for causing it—I do not agree with his reductionist way of thinking. It’s the same old false dichotomy of “the economy versus the environment” argument, repackaged in a different form and for a different audience.
According to Mr. Lomborg, people who are dying of AIDS or malaria, or who are worrying about how they’re going to get their next meal, could care less about global warming. That may well be true, but dealing with their individual plights while ignoring the causes simply perpetuates and compounds their problems. He fails to recognize that unless the rural poor gain access to modern energy services, they will have little hope of ever dealing effectively with the host of ills and injustices that plague their lives.
This point was certainly not lost on Tom Friedman who, sitting right next to Bjorn Lomborg at the CNN/YouTube debate in Copenhagen, astutely countered Mr. Lomborg’s specious argument with the following remarks:
…every problem Bjorn referred to is an energy problem. The school that has no light, that’s an energy problem. A clinic in a remote part of Africa that doesn’t have the capacity to refrigerate medicines, that’s an energy problem. These are all energy problems, and if we, the developed countries, take the lead in driving down the cost of distributed energy, we are solving both problems (climate and poverty).
Needless to say, I concur with Tom Friedman, and I am also pleased that I had an opportunity to contribute to his thinking on the subject of energy poverty, a topic to which he devotes a full chapter in his book, Hot, Flat and Crowded. I am grateful to Mr. Friedman for having quoted me in his book, and more importantly, for having articulated to a global audience the indispensable role that modern energy must play in meeting the Millennium Development Goals. Thanks to Hot, Flat, and Crowded, people around the world are now familiar with the concept of energy poverty.
Had I had the opportunity to interject in yesterday’s CNN/YouTube debate, I would have described to Mr. Lomborg my recent trip to northern Benin, where I witnessed a dramatic improvement in food security thanks to solar power and its ability to pump water for drip irrigation. Or, I might have cited the example of Dr. Paul Farmer whose organization Partners In Health is now using solar as the primary source of power for its rural health centers in Rwanda, Lesotho and Haiti — where tens of thousands of poor patients are being treated for HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and other diseases. Or, perhaps I would have mentioned Zwelenqaba High School in rural South Africa, where students are now able to gain computer skills and access information via the Internet thanks to a solar-powered computer lab that was installed last year.
These are perfect examples of how investing in clean, renewable energy for the developing world can not only help mitigate against climate change but also improve the health, education and economic security of some of the poorest people on earth.
At the CNN/YouTube debate in Copenhagen, and again in the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Lomborg calls for an increase in R&D in the cleantech space as the best way to counter global warming. While I agree that basic research is important, the fact is, a number of renewable energy solutions, including solar and wind, have already benefited over the past couple of decades from dramatic reductions in cost and improvements in efficiency. Solar cells are now being produced for under $1.00 per watt, and new breakthroughs are being announced on a regular basis. Interestingly, the innovations are being driven by business opportunity as much as anything.
Even without further technological breakthroughs, however, solar energy today represents the least-cost option for generating electric power in parts of the world that are not connected to a conventional utility grid.
We don’t need to wait any longer before we help those most vulnerable to the impact of climate change by enabling them to adopt clean energy solutions in their own lives and communities.
It’s time for a smarter—and more holistic—approach to combating climate change. Let’s turn to the sun to help people and the planet.
“I’m lovin’ it”?? There is still hope in Copenhagen. And a sense that our time is running out. The sincerity of the world’s young people is on full display, as Bishop Desmond Tutu observed.
The question I’m raising is: can our governments and our businesses show the same level of commitment?
Earlier, Bishop Tutu had raised the question of how much rich nations are willing to pay poor ones to secure emission cuts. The point he made is that one we have been making for some time now: the fight against energy poverty must be a global priority.
Our position is simple: energy is a human right.
A few days ago, Prince Nasheed of the Maldives eloquently invited leaders to join him in signing a pact for the survival of their low-lying coastal countries, instead of a “suicide pact” at the UN climate talks in Copenhagen. Watch:
In spite of all the uncertainty surrounding COP15, I'm going to Copenhagen as an optimist. I agree with Bill McKibben's point that we need a dramatic breakthrough in Copenhagen, and I believe there are signs that President Obama's behind-the-scenes negotiations just may pay off.
For nearly 20 years, the mission of our Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) has been to provide solar power and communications to a quarter of the world’s population living in energy poverty.
SELF believes that energy is a human right.
To meet global challenges such as food and water scarcity, climate change and poverty, SELF is working to assign greater priority to the importance of sustainable energy among international development banks, aid agencies, foundations, and philanthropic individuals, who are committed to improving the health, education, and economic prospects of the world's poorest citizens.
We define energy poverty as a lack of access to clean and efficient energy systems. Energy poverty exacts its toll on the health, education, food and livelihoods of the world’s poorest people. Energy is a foundation, a prime condition, a prerequisite to a healthy living and a competitive economy, without which:
- Health Clinics go without lighting and medical equipment and without necessary refrigeration to preserve vaccines and other vital medicines for yellow fever, polio, tetanus, whooping cough, and hepatitis A and B.
- Schools go without dependable lighting to facilitate education and ensure the well-being of their students.
- Community knowledge is compromised when connectivity by radio and telephone is not possible.
- Agricultural production is hindered by lack of irrigation systems, which leads to the loss of precious day-light hours to traditional fuel-gathering, severely impeding economic progress.
- Homes are lit with kerosene lamps, which give dim and wavering light, emit cancer-causing smoke, and cause thousands of devastating house fires every year. In contrast, light produced by solar power is carbon free clean, steady, bright, and safe.
- Drinking water is dangerously contaminated with disease-carrying waste and agricultural runoff.
- Micro-Enterprise is severely hampered, as nightfall comes at about 6:30 p.m. year-round, effectively ending the productive work day without access to electric light.
- Urban Migration causes explosive growth of cities in developing nations, straining the natural environment and overwhelming cities' social service systems.
- The lack of irrigation leads to unsustainable farming practices.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the Kalalé District of Benin in West Africa - a poor, dry region in the northern part of the country with approximately 100,000 people - none of whom have access to the electric grid. The economy, as in most rural districts, is mainly based on agriculture with more than 95% of the population involved with farming. Despite its great potential, crop production in Kalalé remains weak and easily influenced by natural conditions. There is precious little rainfall during the six-month dry season that runs from November through April each year.
You can learn about SELF's work in Benin here. This is the whole-village development concept that SELF has been implementing for some time now. We call it our Solar Integrated Development ( SID) Model, and we'd like to scale the process across Africa.
My hope for Copenhagen is that we might just succeed in making the fight against energy poverty a global priority.
I believe SELF has created the right model for sustainable development across much of rural Africa, China, and India. It's time we used solar energy to reap a digital dividend (as C.K. Prahalad calls it) for the poor. Fighting energy poverty is, in my mind, a cleantech opportunity. Sustainability and innovation go hand in hand.
I'm confident we will see a new "coalition of the willing" emerge in Copenhagen - this time to save the Earth. The consequences of inaction are too serious to ignore.
My next blog post will be from Copenhagen. Stay tuned.
I've just returned from Benin, West Africa where I had a chance to see firsthand the remarkable transformation that has taken place in the villages of Dunkassa and Bessassi since the launching, less than two years ago, of SELF’s solar irrigation project in Kalalé District -- a poor, dry region in the northern part of the country.
Kalalé District consists of 44 villages (~100,000 people), none of which are connected to Benin’s electric power grid.
There is precious little rainfall during the six-month dry season that runs from November through April each year. During this period, the land of Kalalé is parched and its people are hungry. Malnutrition is widespread, as evidenced by the many children walking around with distended bellies - a telltale sign of kwashiorkor, a condition caused largely by a lack of protein and micronutrients.
Our involvement in Benin began some three and a half years ago when I was first contacted by Dr. Mamoudou Setamou, a native of Kalalé who had received a Ph.D. in agricultural entomology from the University of Hanover in Germany. Mamoudou, now a Professor at Texas A&M University, had just returned from a home visit to Benin, where he had participated in a meeting of Kalale’s district council to explore alternative options for electrifying Kalalé’s villages since the national grid was not likely to reach this remote part of Benin anytime in the foreseeable future.
Intuiting that solar represented a way forward for his people, Mamoudou turned to SELF for help. After a series of discussions, it became clear that Kalalé District, with its 44 unelectrified villages, offered a great opportunity for SELF to scale its work beyond the scope of a single village to encompass an entire region. After all, with much of Africa still without access to modern energy services, it was time to think and act boldly.
Over the next few months, we put together a plan to generate solar electricity for a wide range of end-uses—including schools, health clinics, water pumping systems, street lighting, and wireless Internet access—in each of the 44 villages that comprise Kalalé District.
In terms of priority, however, an on-the-ground needs assessment revealed that the first concern among the local communities was food security: to find a way to overcome the endemic lack of water and agricultural produce that condemns the people of Kalalé to an endless cycle of poverty and poor health, especially during the 6-month dry season.
To address this problem, we approached Professor Dov Pasternak, a leading drip irrigation expert who, for the past eight years, has been working for the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). While at ICRISAT, Pasternak developed what he refers to as the “Africa Market Garden” – a simple but highly effective method of using drip irrigation to grow high-value fruits and vegetables on small plots of arid land in the Sahel region of Africa.
Prior to working with SELF, Pasternak had relied upon diesel generators to power the water pumps used in his drip irrigation systems. Needless to say, we felt that solar represented a more viable alternative, economically and environmentally. Dov agreed to try it our way, and now with the successful launch of the first solar-powered drip irrigation systems in Benin, he has become a solar convert. (In a white paper SELF recently put together, it is shown that the payback period for solar pumping – as compared with diesel – can be less than two years, and that's at today's diesel prices which are going up, and solar prices which are going down.)
My recent trip to Kalalé was the first time I had visited the project since its launching in November 2007. I was accompanied by a French film crew that is going to feature SELF in an upcoming segment of "Earth from Above", a National Geographic–like program hosted by well-known French photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand.
It was great to return to Benin and spend time with the people of Dunkassa and Bessassi, the two pilot villages where solar drip irrigation systems have been installed. I immediately noticed a difference in the women, who have filled out since our last encounter. Not only are the women better fed, but so are their families and the rest of the villagers who now have year-round access to a steady supply of highly nutritious fruits and vegetables.
What’s more, the women are earning an extra $7.50 per week from the sale of fresh produce at the local market. I was there on market day, and was delighted to see the women march off proudly into town with their baskets filled to the brim with leafy green vegetables.
So not only has nutrition improved in Dunkassa and Bessassi, but income levels also have risen — income which will help pay for school fees, medical treatment, and overall economic development. Indeed, the women are already starting to think about other types of income-generating schemes that can be launched in the villages. It appears their entrepreneurial spirit has been kindled!
Phase II of this project in Benin, scheduled for launch next year, will involve the “whole-village” electrification of Dunkassa and Bessassi, whereby solar electric systems will generate power for the school, health clinic, homes, street lighting, community center, and a WiFi network in each of the pilot villages. We’re also planning to install additional solar pumps that will provide fresh drinking water to the residents of Dunkassa and Bessassi.
While much remains to be done, we’ve gotten off to a promising start in Benin. The tandem use of solar energy and drip irrigation can be replicated in many other parts of sub-Saharan Africa that are poor in water resources but rich in sunlight.
What’s particularly exciting is the fact that in this one project we now have a sustainable model that is simultaneously combating climate change, improving food security, supplying clean water, alleviating poverty, and empowering women.
In South Africa—fifteen years after the end of apartheid—poverty still predominates in much of the rural areas, especially in the Eastern Cape, the birth place of Nelson Mandela. While the South African Department of Education has a mandate to provide computer literacy skills to all high school students by 2012, the fact remains that some 16,000 schools in South Africa still lack access to electricity.
The challenge of providing electricity to so many rural schools in South Africa is not likely to be met by ESKOM, the country’s largest electric public utility, considering that ESKOM is having increasing difficulty keeping up with its current demand, and last year introduced load-shedding and rolling black-outs as a way of dealing with the nation-wide shortage of electric power.
Building on the success of a previous initiative in the KwaZulu/Natal region of South Africa, where Myeka High School—located deep in the Valley of a Thousand Hills outside of Durban—became the first rural, off-grid high school in the country to be equipped with a solar-powered computer lab, SELF teamed up last year with several local partners to bring solar electricity and wireless Internet access to three remote schools in the Eastern Cape.
With funding from the Kellogg Foundation and JPMorgan Chase, and with additional support from Dell, eKhaya, LearnThings, and Dabba Telecommunications, we installed a 4.5 kilowatt solar system at Zwelenqaba Senior Secondary School, located near the town of Coffee Bay on the “wild coast” of South Africa. The solar system is now powering 25 laptop computers that were donated to the project by the Dell South Africa Development Fund, as well as a printer and several other peripheral appliances. In addition, two nearby Junior Secondary Schools, Bafazi JSS and Kwa’Ntshunqe JSS, were equipped with smaller solar sytems and computer labs.
All three schools are connected to each other by means of a solar-powered WiFi mesh network, as well as to the Internet via the local cellular network. The Video-In, Knowledge-Out (VIKO) server donated by Dabba Telecommunications contain 1500 hours of interactive video lessons.
LearnThings provided training for the teachers on how to integrate computer skills and online learning into their curriculum, while eKkaya ICT has been working with Zwelenqaba and the two nearby junior secondary schools on a program of cultural exchange and remote training via the Internet.
An official launch of the project took place on August 1, 2008. I traveled to South Africa to join in the festivities and to check out the completed solar installation. To get to the school, one has to fly from Johannesburg to Mtata in the Eastern Cape, and from there, drive for two hours on a paved, then dirt road. By the time my colleague Rael Lissoos from Dabba Telecommunications and I arrived to the site, it was already dark, but the computer lab shone brightly. And the computer instructor was eager to show off the brand new Dell laptops before storing them away for the night in the safe that we had provided to the school.
The launch could not have gone better. The kids are ecstatic to have electricity and computers at their school, and they’re eager to soak up all kinds of new information. Soon they will have a webcam in the classroom, and we’ll be able to videoconference with each other!